Winners of 17 straight, red-hot Bearcats open state tonight

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

BAINBRIDGE -- Rickey McCullough laughs when he hears the number. It is a bit preposterous -- almost unimaginable.

But then again, McCullough never imagined his Bainbridge Bearcats would have this kind of season.

So when you tell the Bainbridge coach that in order to win the Class AAAA state title this year, his kids would need to take their current 17-game win streak and stretch it to 22, all he can is chuckle.

"I can't even look at that number,'' McCullough said Thursday during practice. "I don't even want to think about it.''

It's tough enough to think about what the Bearcats have already done. They're the hottest team in Southwest Georgia, and ready to leap into the GHSA state tournament, which begins for the boys teams today all over Georgia as the Bearcats host Ola at 7 p.m.

Bainbridge brings its 17-game winning streak into tonight's home game against fourth-seeded Ola -- a winning streak that still leaves McCullough shaking his head.

Sure, the Bearcats went to the Final Four a year ago, but after losing in the semifinal, everybody took off. They lost eight seniors, including all five starters. Everyone in Bainbridge knew it was going to be a long season.

"At our banquet at the end of last year, I said we would be reloading,'' McCullough said. "But I was just teasing. I had no idea what kind of team we would have. I really thought we would be right around .500 and play pretty well at times.''

"Pretty well,'' is an understatement. Bainbridge hasn't lost a game this year, literally. The last defeat was on Dec. 23. But it's the two games before that one that McCullough pins the change in the season on when he looks back at where his team has been and where they are today.

"We had so many overtime games early. I think we played four overtimes in nine games,'' he said. "The turning point came right before we lost that game to Thomasville on Dec. 23. We went down to St. Joe's (Fla.) right before the Hoops Fest Tournament, and played a real close game. We were up by three and they hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer, and then beat us in overtime. I should have fouled the guy. Then three days later (on Dec. 22) we had an overtime game at Terrell County. Four of my five starters fouled out and we were down by five with a minute left in overtime, and came back and won by four (83-79). From that point on, they started believing in themselves.''

Bainbridge was 5-3 after the loss at St. Joe's, and only 7-4 when the streak began. The Bearcats won 14 in a row, and then made a grueling run in the Region 1-AAAA tournament last week, making the two-hour round-trip to Macon three out of four days and winning all three games.

"Those trips back and forth to Macon will wear you out,'' McCullough said. "(The kids) showed a lot of toughness in that tournament.''

Bainbridge beat Hardaway, 58-49, to win the title, and stretch the streak to 17 -- a number no one would have dreamed of attaining. Bainbridge is now 24-4.

"It's unreal,'' McCullough said. "I didn't know what kind of team we would have. I know this group would battle our starters every day in practice last year, and then we had a real good summer. We went down to Florida State and we won the camp (title). But I couldn't have (predicted) this.''

McCullough plays nine guys, and everybody contributes, but the Bearcats do have a go-to guy: Devon Baulkmon, a junior, leads them in scoring (20.9 points a game) and rebounds (9.2) -- close to a double-double season.

Justin Harris, a senior, averages 14 points a game, and DaVario Thomas, who plays forward and guard, was averaging 11.5 points. Thomas injured his hand this week in practice, and won't play tonight.

But no one is doubting Bainbridge now.

"It's unbelievable how these kids have played,'' McCullough said "Somebody is going to have to be pretty good to beat us, because they believe.''